Kate Riordan, THE HEATWAVE

Kate Riordan, THE HEATWAVE

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kate. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about The Heatwave.

Kate Riordan: Yay! Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Did you intentionally pick a shirt that matched the cover?

Kate: No, all my clothes are green.

Zibby: Good, perfect. Excellent. I just wanted to make sure.

Kate: It’s a good idea. I should’ve gone with that.

Zibby: For people who don’t know, could you please describe what The Heatwave is about?

Kate: The Heatwave is about a single mother, a divorced mother, Sylvie, who’s returning to the South of France where she’s from with her younger daughter, Emma, for the first time in ten years. Ten years earlier, she lost her eldest daughter, Elodie, there. The book really is about finding out what happened ten years ago. It’s sort of a suspense novel, really.

Zibby: What is it that inspired you to write this story? I know it’s not your first novel by any stretch. How did you come up with these characters? Why this story?

Kate: I first of all really wanted to set a book in France. That was my starting point. I’d been looking for an excuse for years. I went as a child and spent many, many years in France. My French is not actually very good, but my heart’s in the right place. I do love it. I always wanted to write a book in France. Then I really wanted to write a book about sibling rivalry. The initial idea was to have it written from the point of view of the younger daughter, the youngest sister, Emma, who’s thirteen/fourteen in the book, and have her living in the shadow of this older sister that was killed ten years earlier and how she deals with that. She’s half resentful and half adoring. Then I found when I was writing in Emma’s point of view, it was a bit flimsy. I didn’t feel as though it was coming very naturally. I thought I’d try out writing in Sylvie’s voice, Sylvie being the mother in her early forties. It suddenly took off then, the book. Then it became a book about mothers and daughters and a toxic relationship between a mother and a daughter. Then I got really into that. I’d found my book then. It came quite easily after that. There was a lot editing. I’m not saying it was that easy, but I felt immediately as though I’d got the right story when I started writing from Sylvie’s point of view.

Zibby: I loved how it wasn’t just from Sylvie’s point of view. It was almost as if it was a letter to Emma. It’s like, you came in and I was giving this to you. As a reader, you feel like you’re just sort of listening in on a mother’s conversation with her own child telling her this whole story, which was so great especially as things escalated and got very exciting.

Kate: I enjoyed doing that. Actually, I had a discussion early on about, do we like this second-person narrative? Is it confusing? I really stuck up for it and thought it made it more intense. It’s really an apologia to Emma. Why is that? What’s happened? What doesn’t Emma know? That was another reason for moving the point of view into Sylvie’s head so that she became a more interesting narrator because, actually, the whole point is Emma knows very little. If you as the reader are stuck with Emma for the whole book as someone who’s totally in the dark, I was worried that it would become quite frustrating for the reader. Whereas with Sylvie, there are flashbacks in the book. The present day is actually 1993, but it flashes back to the seventies and eighties. That enabled me to let Sylvie in the past reveal clues as to what happened one by one. Hopefully, that draws the reader on and propels the narration along.

Zibby: It was super successful. I feel like from a craft perspective and structure and everything, it was just perfect. Both went in tandem letting us stay in it and yet getting enough of the backstory, just enough at each time to really care even more. I thought it was awesome.

Kate: Thank you. I was just going to say that with the editing, I’ve got to thank my editor in the UK and my editor in the US, Grand Central . They really worked me hard to make the book tight and said things like, “She’s sitting by the pool again. Things need to happen.” I have them to thank for a lot of that. I did the nice atmosphere and they helped me narrow down the action.

Zibby: The atmosphere also was fantastic. I felt like it was my biggest vacation in this whole quarantine time where international travel is not allowed. All of a sudden, I could smell and taste and see and hear everything going on in the South of France. It was such a nice little respite. In fact, I put it in my newsletter this week and said if anybody wants a trip to France, pick up The Heatwave. I have all these people saying, thank you, I got it. I feel like I took a trip with you. That’s really great. I loved also, as you were mentioning before, this whole relationship with mothers and daughters and how fraught it is. There’s some stuff in here that’s very much relatable to really any mother and daughter, and any new mother especially, who’s trying to get to know their child. You never know what you get. I’ve said this before, but before I was a mother, I thought that I would have a lot more control over how my kids turned out. As I’ve had more and more kids, it becomes very clear to me that I have no control and that they’re kind of born the way they’re born. All I can do is straighten out the edges, but the bed is made. Here’s one quote. You said, “Although my joy is laced with fear, it’s the kind every parent feels, the kind that hurts your heart and makes the world seem as amazing as it is hazardous. I am a mother.” This is right when she becomes a mother and is trying to figure out how to process this in the context of the world.

Kate: Before it all goes wrong.

Zibby: Before it all goes wrong, yes. Although, it goes wrong kind of slowly, and so you get to go along with her, which is great. Tell me a little about that part of the narration, the relationship between mothers and daughters and your own perspective coming into it. Did you take anything of this from any part of your life or relationships you’ve seen or friends or relatives? Did any of this germinate in a part of your life?

Kate: The thing that really is strongly drawn from my life is actually Sylvie’s relationship with her younger daughter, Emma. In the present day in ’93, a lot of that is me and my mom. I’m my mom’s only one. My parents split up when I was five. I’ve got great stepparents and it’s all great. Mom and I were very close. That is very much us. In terms of Elodie, who is the difficult child and the child that Sylvie really struggles to bond with, that is very much me having — well, it sounds bad saying having fun with, but really letting my imagination go. I suppose I’ve been influenced by other books and other films in that sense. Something like We Need to Talk About Kevin is an obvious example of that, a mother who actually — my Sylvie started off with a much more idealized idea of motherhood than maybe Eva does in We Need to Talk About Kevin. She becomes more and more ambivalent as times goes on and starts thinking — there’s those questions of nature and nurture. Are the problems with Elodie my fault? Is she born this way? Then what happens is when she, ten years later — she decides she’s not going to have any more children because she thinks she’s terrible at it and she couldn’t cope, possibly, with another one. Then she falls pregnant again with Emma by accident. Then Emma’s really easy. It all slots into place. It’s exactly how she dreamed it would be. Then she starts thinking more and more and feeling about this, gosh, maybe it is actually to do with Elodie rather than me.

I think even if a mother has a fairly straightforward relationship with their child, there’s always loads of guilt in there and worry that you’re not getting it right or that you’re going to stir up troubles for your children. They’re going to be in therapy forever because of some small mistake you’re making down the line. It’s probably also interesting to say that I’m not a mother. I didn’t have children. It didn’t happen for me. That’s a whole other story. I felt actually quite liberated to write this in many ways because I didn’t have to — I’m not saying women writer who are mothers shouldn’t write a book like this. For me, there were no qualms about writing a book that my child would one day grow up and read and maybe think, did mom feel like this about me at any point? I could just go for it. I felt as though I’ve got lots of mom friends who, there are things they don’t say. There are still taboos. You might say, oh, god, I’m finding it really hard. For instance, I think a lot of moms don’t want to admit that it’s often quite boring, being a mom of young children, and very repetitive. You feel like you’ve lost yourself a bit and you’ve just become mum, or mom. I could explore all that and really go for it. I was trying to do a little bit of a service to mothers everywhere in that sense. That sounds ridiculous, but I can be really honest because I don’t have children. I think actually a lot of you feel like this sometimes, and that’s fine.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you for the service on behalf of moms everywhere. I appreciate it.

Kate: medal.

Zibby: Medal is in FedEx right now. Thank you. Can you talk a little more about your decision not to have kids? Is it private? You don’t have to.

Kate: I’m actually quite open about it. I don’t mind talking about it. I actually had loads of miscarriages. I had always been quite ambivalent about motherhood. I wasn’t sure it was for me. I need a lot of my own space and time. I’m not good with noise. I was never sure that I would be terribly good at it. It maybe wasn’t taken out of my hands. I could’ve maybe kept going. I had made the decision that I didn’t want to try anymore. I felt as though my body wasn’t my own. I felt the hormones were making me mad. I just stopped. It was a real relief, actually. I have dogs instead who are much easier, probably.

Zibby: I don’t know. I find kids easier than dogs. I’ve had a couple dogs. At least kids, you can reason with them at some point. I feel like dogs, I don’t know if they understand me. I love dogs, but I don’t have the gift of dealing with dogs.

Kate: I have two rescue dogs. One particularly is completely nuts. I’ve actually put her to bed in her crate with a cover over because otherwise she would be growling and jumping up and wanting to see who you were and hear your voice. You couldn’t do that with a child, probably. That would be seen as a bit cruel to put them to bed and lock the door.

Zibby: That would probably not be a good idea. I would not recommend that.

Kate: That’s the good thing about dogs. You can do that. It’s allowed.

Zibby: That’s true. I’ve realized that the child equivalent of that is basically putting them in a trampoline. They can’t really go anywhere. You zip them in. It’s contained. There is a noise factor, but it’s usually outside. The trampoline as a modern-day playpen for kids up to however old. Sometimes you can just throw your partner in there, zip it all up. In terms of the structure of the book again — I know I’m jumping around here a little. I’ve always been wondering, when you write two timelines like this and you have such discrete stories going, two at a time — essentially, you’re writing two books at the same time. Then they have to somehow marry at the end. Did you write one of them first and then the other? Did you write them both in tandem? How did you approach the writing process of the story?

Kate: I started off just writing random bits that interested me because I have to coerce myself into writing quite a lot. I really love it when I do it, but I sort of avoid it and I fight it. When I’m writing a book, at the beginning, I write bits that I’m interested in, and so they’ll be all over the place. I actually work with Scrivener quite a lot because I find — I don’t know if you know that program.

Zibby: Yep.

Kate: It means you can move things around much more easily than you could in Word. Often, I’ll write sections and then move the order about. With this one particularly, I’ve written a lot of the more difficult scenes, shall we say, the bits that go in the last two-thirds. The flashbacks are chronological. They see Elodie growing up. I needed more at the beginning. The softer bits, the bits about when she’s pregnant and she’s still getting on with her ex-husband Greg, a lot of those were actually slotted in and written quite late. If you do that, then you can play around with it. You can also find little patterns. If in a 1993 scene, there’s sort of a theme going on, you can maybe have a little hint of that in the flashback that follows that ties those two things together. It might be something to do with the house and a little feature that crops up in the house that reminds the reader that this is the same place. I think that can add to atmosphere and the idea of the place almost being haunted by memories. I do lots and lots of moving about. Even old scenes, I will then rejig and add in different nuance.

One of the main things I had to work on on the edit quite hard was actually to make the more dramatic scenes — this is hard not to give stuff away with this book. Elodie is a very troubled child. There are scenes where she’s being a bad child and kind of scary. Some of that stuff, I had to work on because my editors felt maybe some bits weren’t scary enough. I was actually being too subtle with it, which is interesting to me. I’ve got a half-brother and sister, but they’re quite a lot younger than me. I did grow up more or less as an only child. I was putting in sibling rivalry scenes. My editors were saying, “That’s kind of normal,” and I was thinking it was really disturbing and dark. I had to up all that stuff but keep it on the right side of — I didn’t want it to get stupid. I didn’t want it to become almost farcical and too grim and too gory. With that, ideas of callous and unemotional children who you worry might grow up to be psychopaths, there are a lot of tropes they use again and again. It’s very hard to escape them entirely. I didn’t just want the neighbor’s cat ending up dead. I wanted to do something a little bit different if I could. Working on those bits was fun. I’ve gone on a massive tangent from your original question.

Zibby: That’s all right. I enjoyed listening.

Kate: I don’t write in order by any means. I mess around and come back to bits and then slot it all in as a jigsaw at the end.

Zibby: Tell me about how you have to motivate yourself to write. Tell me about that, even though you’ve decided to be a writer.

Kate: I know. I know. I’m a masochist. Yes, I love it. If I’ve had a good day of writing, I feel so, so calm and lovely and yogic that evening. I think, I’m just going to do that again tomorrow. I’m going to have a proper routine. It all goes out the window. It’s really weird. I don’t understand that resistance because it’s my job. If I couldn’t get any more book deals, I’d be distraught. Who knows? They get done. I’ve written five books. Maybe don’t beat myself up too much because they do get done in the end. I never miss deadlines. I was a journalist before I was a writer. I wasn’t even on monthly magazine. I was on weekly magazines. That really suited me because I’m quite quick at getting stuff done. I quite like that, doing a little bit of research, write it all up. Then boom, it’s done. It’s in. It’s complete. I can move onto something else. Whereas with a book, it is a kind of, we’ll see you in a year. I find that quite tricky to navigate because I’ve always been a last-minute person. You really can’t be a last-minute person if you’re writing a ninety thousand-word novel. You’d have a nervous breakdown if you left it until the last month. I have to be consistent. I walk around with a lot of guilt. I’m coming around to thinking that actually a lot of days when I think I’m, we say in Britain skiving, I don’t know if that’s a word in America, where you’re kind of bunking off, these are all really British terms, but when you’re shirking and not doing the work you should be doing. Sorry, what was it?

Zibby: Maybe procrastinating where you’re putting it off?

Kate: Yeah, that kind of thing. Actually, I think I am doing work in my head. I’m walking the dogs and I’m making little notes on my phone. I do more work than I think I do. Things are percolating all the time, hopefully.

Zibby: We’re going to go with that one. Non-stop workaholic.

Kate: Yeah, I never stop.

Zibby: Never stop. Slow down already. Come on. So are you already at work on your next novel? What’s going on in your time now?

Kate: I’m busy at the moment with stuff for The Heatwave, which is really fun, like this kind of thing. Yes, I’ve started. I’ve done about a fifth of a book set in Italy. I was due to go to Italy this summer with my parents, actually, and do some research. I was really looking forward to that. Obviously, that’s been postponed. If The Heatwave is about mothers and daughters, this is about marriages. I split up with my husband quite recently, which is totally amicable and nice. I’m forty-two. I think it’s an interesting age, early forties, late thirties. You’re still very much young enough to start again. Not that being fifty is not young enough to start again, but you know what I mean. You’re probably halfway through your life if you’re lucky. It’s a time where you think, what do I want the rest of my life to look like? Is this enough? It’s exploring those kind of things. I keep saying to my ex, it’s not going to be about you and me. It’s not going to be about you and me. Don’t worry. Inevitably, you do draw from your life a bit. I’m really looking forward to that. There’s some American characters in that as well who I’m looking forward to writing. Maybe I can do a research trip to the States as well.

Zibby: Totally. Come visit. I had the same thing. I got divorced five years ago. I’m forty-three, so when I was thirty-eight. I’m remarried now. I feel like hitting your fortieth birthday, there’s a big shift and recognition you only get one life to live and life’s too short to be miserable type of thing, so you might as well. It’s still a big step and a big risk. I am really eager, then, to read your next book.

Kate: You might like it. It is a really interesting age. I’ve got lots of friends who are going through similar things. It’s all happened around the same time almost as though it’s contagious. Lockdown finished a few friends off as well in terms of their marriages and their relationships. It’s just strange times all around, really. I’m hoping I can write something that speaks to people about that stuff. I have written a few books now. I used to write more historical fiction. As I’ve gone on, I’ve got more confident and maybe being happier to write stuff that’s closer to me. When my mom read The Heatwave for the first time, she said, “This is like you.” She didn’t mean that Sylvie is me.

Zibby: Uh oh.

Kate: Or Elodie is me.

Zibby: Elodie, okay. Good.

Kate: Imagine that. But just that it felt as though it was me speaking. I thought, yeah, that’s a confidence thing. I think the next one will be even more that way, maybe.

Zibby: That’s great. We’ll get all the way to maybe a memoir in forty years. Who knows? You’ll work your way slowly there. What did you and your ex decide to do about the dogs, just out of curiosity?

Kate: Currently, he’s between places at the moment because I’ve bought him out, so I’m in the cottage. They’re with me all the time at the moment. We’re going to have a week on and a week off. That will suit me because I like spending some time in London. I’ve got family there. I live in the Cotswold in the middle of nowhere. I like having that city/country thing. I think that will work well. Currently, I am kind of a single mom to them. It’s quite hardcore some days, especially when it’s raining and I have to take them out. It’s been very nice and very amicable. He’s a big support to me, always. As divorces go, it’s been a good one.

Zibby: Do you ever feel scared? If I were in a big cottage in the middle of nowhere with just me and my two dogs, I feel like I get scared all the time outside of cities having grown up in New York City. Anytime I’m in any sort of wilderness, I’m like, what’s that noise?

Kate: I was like that to begin with. The first night we spent here it was so dark. I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or not. I was born in London. I’m like you. I’ve got used to it. Luckily, weirdly, it’s 1750s, this cottage, but really not very creaky, fortunately. What there is is a lot of spiders at the moment because they’re all coming in to mate. Every night I’m having to deal with these huge house spiders. I’ve really grown up in the last couple of weeks. That bit’s not fun, I must say. So fairly soon would quite like another husband.

Zibby: Or perhaps just an exterminator.

Kate: Maybe I’ll get a cat or something. They can get the spiders. Apparently, they do.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Kate: This is also advice to me. Give yourself a break. Don’t beat yourself up all the time. I always talk about this because I love Stephen King. He wrote a book, On Writing. It really, actually, intimidated me because he’s got this prodigious work ethic. He said if you’re not writing two thousand words a day, then what hell are you doing? You’re not really a serious writer. You don’t, obviously, want it. It really made me not write for ages because I thought I’m just not doing it properly. I would say do what you can. Also, read. Read, read, read. I was a reader way before I was a writer. You will learn what you like and what you don’t like and what’s effective. If you read a book and you’re on the edge of your seat, you can look at why that is. Look at it like a construction. That’s the best way to learn, I think. So there you are.

Zibby: I totally agree. If you end up needing to do research on American divorcées, you can just DM or something and we can keep this conversation going.

Kate: That would be great.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks, Kate, for coming on. I absolutely loved this book. I’ve recommended it a hundred times in everywhere I recommend books. Just the way you write, and I know we talked a lot about structure and all the rest, but your actual writing style is so beautiful. I just loved it. I just loved it. I emailed your publicist in the beginning. I was like, I love this book.

Kate: Thank you. I love that. That’s really made my day. Thank you.

Zibby: Good. Have a great day. Stock up on the green shirts for future interviews. Good luck with the dogs.

Kate: Thanks so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Kate: Bye.

Kate Riordan, THE HEATWAVE